Getting Close

By Diane Haddad Premium

Author Ian Frazier’s genealogy research started like many others’: He was sifting through the remnants of his parents’ lives after they passed away, looking for meaning in what they’d saved. But his roots pursuit was perhaps more intense than most. His novel Great Plains had become a best-seller, giving Frazier the freedom to immerse himself in his ancestors’ lives: He lingered in the small Ohio and Indiana towns they settled, pored over newspapers and books they read, and followed their maneuvers on Civil War battlefields.

In his book Family, published in 1994, Frazier traces his roots from his earliest US ancestors to today—but not necessarily in that order. Here, he tells Family Tree Magazine about building monuments, getting into your forebears’ heads and “ancestor worship.”

FTM: Family has an incredible amount of detail. You did so much research. How did you put it all together?

IF: I mainly put in what I was interested in. There were a few things I didn’t put in that I wanted to, but basically, I put in everything. I could tell from people who read it when they would get bored, so that would be my indication when to stop.

Did you know from the start you’d turn your family’s story into a book?

No, I didn’t. As soon as I started going through my parents’ stuff, I thought, wow, this is so much. I got an inkling that maybe they wanted me to do something—or somebody before them had. I thought people would like the book, but I was trying to build a monument. I wasn’t trying to write a best seller.

Writers say starting is the hardest part. How did you know how to begin?

I still am not sure I started it right. After I finished it, I thought—and I’m not sorry I did it the way I did—but I thought, if I would’ve done a book just about Norwalk [Ohio], I probably would’ve sold more books.

You think?

Oh, yeah. It was tough to tell people why they should read it, because everybody could think, “Why would I want to read a book about your family?” If I had done it just about the town, that would’ve included more readers. It would’ve been easy for readers to relate to. People like to get nostalgic about a small town, but to get into a family that isn’t your own takes more points in common.

You started with your ancestors at the turn of the century.

I liked the opening line about the 20th century beginning on a Tuesday. It’s very interesting as they were approaching the millennium, because they saw it coming but they didn’t mark the occasion. I couldn’t find any celebrations.

I never got a sense from reading Family that you struggled to find information about any ancestors.

I didn’t. I had an awful lot of information. People in my family back in the 19th century had done research. People in my family had been important to historical societies in Ohio; one of my ancestors founded the Firelands Historical Society [in Norwalk]. In Indiana, they were active in the Disciples of Christ Church, which has a good library and newsletter. There were a few ancestors where I couldn’t find much, but there was nobody I couldn’t find anything on.

What strikes you as a big difference between your ancestors’ lives and yours?

There are a number of things. The difference in what they had in their heads and what I have in my head: If you go back 150 or 200 years, they didn’t seem to have any jingles or ads in their heads. But they had the Bible in their heads, so they’d use something from the Bible the way we’d say “the Hamburglar.” 

How much of the book would you say is surmising: “it must have been…”?

When I reread it, I noted a lot of times when I said, “he would have been such and such,” where I don’t exactly know. And you do have to fill in. There’s a good book by William Maxwell about similar people, called Ancestors (Vintage). He uses a construction that goes something like “why they had moved to Huron County, I don’t know,” and that’s how he deals with it. My reaction is, find out why they moved to Huron County. Or if you can’t find out, you may have to speculate. There was a fair amount in Family because a lot of information you get isn’t really narrative-oriented.

And some things you just don’t know.

Some things you don’t know, but you can guess. You can get really close to [your ancestors]. Having done a lot of research, you can trust your guesses somewhat better than if you don’t know who they are.

If you don’t have something like a diary, how do you “get close”?

I find it useful to go anyplace that was important to the person, not the way it is today, but the place. You can always find someplace that’s the same. I read accounts that would be close to what they experienced, for example, if someone described an event you knew they were at. Or using an object that belonged to the person—if you imagine it the way your ancestor imagined it, I think that can do it too.
I guess what you try to do in family research is to see that person. It’s as if you’re creating a kind of heavenly judgment, where you say, “Ah, I know what you were going through.” Most people go through their lives unseen and uncomprehended like that. It’s like you’re taking a soul that’s adrift, and putting it in a place in the world. It’s almost a religious thing, like ancestor worship or something.
From the November 2009 Family Tree Magazine